Just last Sunday we celebrated the glorious resurrection of our Savior. Easter Sunday is always a highlight for me, as I’m sure it is for you as well. This morning I want us to return to our study of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. As we head back to Romans and begin our study of Romans 15:1-6, I am reminded of a scene from Jesus’ life just before He went to the cross.
Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and He was praying. While in prayer, Jesus prayed for His followers. Turn with me to John 17 and let’s take a look at one of the things that was on His heart as He approached the end of His ministry. John writes in John 17:9-11.
9 I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name–the name you gave me–so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:9-11 NIV)
Jesus prays, not for the world, but for those the Father has given to Him as His followers. He prays for the Father to protect them so that they may be one as He was one with the Father. Jesus prays for the unity of His followers. Jesus isn’t through praying at this point. He continues His prayer and in John 17:20-23 we read,
20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23 NIV)
Jesus prays, not just for His followers who would remain after His death and resurrection, but for those who would believe as a result of their proclamation of the Gospel for generations to come. And what does He pray? He prays that we may be one, that we would be unified. In verse 21, Jesus prays, “that all of them may be one…” In verse 22, Jesus prays, “that they may be one as we are one:” In verse 23, Jesus prays, “May they be brought to complete unity…”
I’ve thought about Jesus’ prayer during much of this past week as I’ve been studying Romans 15:1-6. I’ve heard it said that when a person knows that they are in the last days of their life that their true character surfaces, what really matters to them is expressed. I’ve had many opportunities to be around people who knew that they only had a short time to live. I’ve witnessed the truth of this statement from time-to-time. I’ve had people share with me their regrets. I’ve listened to folks talk about God with an openness and honesty I never knew they possessed when they were in good health. I’ve heard people talk about things that I never heard them talk about before they became aware of their impending death.
As Jesus was spending His last days on earth He prayed about the glory of God, He proclaimed His faithfulness to the mission He was given to carry out, He prayed for His followers, and He prayed specifically for their unity. The unity of those who would claim His name was on the heart and mind of Jesus as He prepared to go to the cross. That ought to make a deep impression on each of us this morning.
Jesus’ followers took up that mantle of unity and carried it like a precious jewel. We’ve already read about the importance of unity for the believers in Rome as we’ve been studying Romans. If you will remember back a few weeks ago then you will remember that Paul urged the people of Rome to accept one another and not allow differences of opinion about what you can eat or drink or about the importance of one day over another to drive a wedge between them. Then in Romans 14:19-20, Paul wrote,
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. (Romans 14:19-20 NIV)
As we begin our study of Romans 15, Paul has even more to say about the importance of the unity of followers of Jesus. Let’s read our Scripture for today and see what we can learn.
1 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:1-6 NIV)
I listened in on a conversation this week between Steve and Anne. Steve describes himself as a “Right-wing-fundamentalist-who-beats-people-over-the-head-with-the-Bible.” Anne describes herself as “very, very liberal who loves Jesus.” Some of you would absolutely love Steve, but you wouldn’t care too much for Anne because her politics or her take on life and God are different than yours. Others of you would love Anne, but Steve would grate on your nerves because he is exactly what he describes himself to be. As I listened in on their conversation I thought, “How in the world can two such different people be such good friends, genuine friends, who respect and appreciate one another?” Then, Anne closed out their conversation with these words, “I just love the work you do in the world Steve. It is so precious. It’s like the Olympic rings of the work you and I do overlap in more places than they don’t. Even though politically and probably in our spiritual understanding we are at two different ends of it. But if you look at the rings where we overlap it is much, much greater.” Then Steve said, “We are so far apart it is crazy, but we are going to spend eternity together in heaven telling stories about Jesus.” The friendship of Steve and Anne is a testimony to the unity that is available to people who are different, diverse, people who would most likely never be friends if it weren’t for the cross.
Throughout Romans 12-14, Paul has been urging the believers in Rome to live “in view of God’s mercy.” As you relate to your neighbors, your enemies, those in authority over you, and the Body of Christ—relate to them with God’s mercy expressed to you in full view. Paul’s advice works. I guarantee you it works. If we live fully aware of God’s glorious mercy given to us then we will be much more inclined to offer that mercy to others.
In Romans 14, Paul talks about those who are “strong” and those who are “weak.” Those who are legalists are identified by Paul as “weak” but Paul never puts himself in either category, that is, until he gets to our Scripture for today. Take a look at Romans 15:1-2 with me.
1 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:1-2 NIV)
Paul says, “we who are strong…” Paul was once a legalist, but he had been freed from legalistic righteousness, jumping through “religious-looking hoops” to make himself appealing to God. Instead of trying to humiliate or shame those who were weak, Paul says that those who are strong should bear with the weaknesses, or failings, of the weak. If I were a Pharisee I would ask for clarification of the word, “bear.” Maybe there is someone here this morning who is “free in Christ.” You are enjoying your freedom fully, not using your freedom to sin, but simply enjoying your freedom. You aren’t constrained by religious “obligation,” which you describe as “rules made up by men.” You don’t stay up at night worrying if you’ve kept every letter of the law, you are free from the law. You rest comfortably in the grace of God and you know that it is this grace, and not your works, that have saved you.
Maybe there is someone sitting next to you on the pew this morning who places great value on the fact that they do certain things or refrain from certain things that set them apart from what they would describe as less committed Christians. You know who you are. You work out every morning because you know that your body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” You don’t go to R-rated movies because…well, Christians just shouldn’t. You memorize at least two verses a week because the Bible says, “I’ve hidden Your word in my heart so that I might not sin against You.” (Psalm 119:11) You attend Sunday school and church because the Bible says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…” (Hebrews 10:25 NIV) You are a teetotaler because you believe that the wine spoken of in the Bible was not fermented.
Along with these diverse takes on God, His Word, and living life there are other issues that get in the mix and divide Christians. You are a Democrat and the person next to you is a Republican. She loves sports of all kinds and you would rather watch grass grow than attend a ballgame. He loves the arts, museums, the theatre, and you have never had an artistic thought in your life. You love to read and she loves to experience the adrenaline rushes of life. The list could go and on and on, but hopefully you get my point.
If Jesus prayed for the unity of His followers, how can His followers hold it all together when they are so different, one from another? In verse 1, Paul says that those who are strong are to “bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” I love words. If you have been around here any amount of time then you already know that. I don’t love words because of their sound, the way they roll off of your tongue, or because some words make you sound sophisticated or smart, but I love words, especially ancient words, because they give us a depth of meaning that we desperately need. When Paul says that the strong are to bear the weak, we need to understand just what that means. Not what we think it means or what we want it to mean, but what it really means. The Greek word for “bear,” is “βαστάζω” (bastazo) and it means, “to take up with the hands, to carry, to sustain, uphold, or support.” It doesn’t mean, “to tolerate, put up with, or to stomach someone that you really can’t stand.”
This Greek word is used in many places in the New Testament. It is used in Luke 7:14 of those who were carrying the coffin of the young man. In John 19:17 the word is used to describe Jesus carrying His own cross. In Acts 3:2 it is used of the men who were carrying their disabled friend to the temple gate called “Beautiful” where he begged every day. In Galatians 6:2, Paul uses the word to teach one of the fundamental lessons for the followers of Jesus. Paul says,
2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2 NIV)
We, who are followers of Jesus, are united by His love for us demonstrated through His life, death, and resurrection. You think you are different from some of those who are surrounding you this morning? Well, how much more different is Jesus than all of us? We have much more in common with one another than any of us has in common with Jesus.
If we are unwilling to carry our brothers and sisters in Christ despite our differences in peripheral matters then we desperately need to revisit the love Jesus has shown us. John MacArthur writes about Romans 15:1-2.
Therefore, to bear the weaknesses of fellow believers is not simply to tolerate those weaknesses but to help carry them—by not being critical or condescending and by showing respect for sincere views or practices that we may not agree with. It is to ‘do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind … [to] regard one another as more important than’ ourselves, not merely looking ‘out for [our] own personal interests, but also for the interests of others’ (Philippians 2:3-4). (MacArthur, John. MacArthur’s New Testament Commentary: Romans 9-16.The Moody Bible Institute. 1994)
It is amazing what can happen when a person knows that they are loved. Through the years I have seen so many people come through Britton Christian Church who were very different than me in so many ways. We’ve had people who, when they came here, believed some of the craziest things I’ve ever heard in my life, yet they needed to know that we loved them, genuinely loved them, and that they were welcome here. I didn’t stop teaching God’s Word when I came to passages that I knew they didn’t agree with or which they interpreted differently than I do, but I loved them. I didn’t make their lifestyle choices or their theology the topic of every conversation I had with them, but I loved them.
Some of you don’t agree with my methodology. You want everyone to believe just like you do and that is priority number one for you. My priority is that folks know that I love them, because I believe that if they know that we who follow Jesus love them, then they will be more open to understanding Jesus’ love for them. If someone knows that I love them then they are going to be much more prone to really listen to what I have to say, they will be more open to considering why I believe what I believe. For me, it is not about me changing folks, but more importantly, it is about me building others up and blessing them so that God can change them. In Romans 15:2, Paul wrote,
2 Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. (Romans 15:2 NIV)
I will confess that it is much easier to be around people who are like me, those who believe just like I do, have the same political persuasions I have, share the same interests in life that I love, as well as the pet peeves that I possess. Come to think about it, this is the blueprint for most churches today. Paul says it is not about you and neither is it about me. We should “please our neighbor for their good, to build them up.” The Greek word that is translated, “to build them up,” is “οἰκοδομή” (oikodome) and it means, “(the act of) building, building up, to promote another’s growth in Christian wisdom, piety, happiness, holiness.” The word is used of literally building buildings, but Paul uses it as a word to describe building and strengthening the Body of Christ and individuals as well. He wrote in Romans 14:19,
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (Romans 14:19 NIV)
In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he used the same word to describe the purpose for which God gave gifts to His people. Listen to this from Ephesians 4:11-13.
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 NIV)
Why does God give these gifts to men and women? Is it so that they can shine and be applauded as Christian superstars? Is it so that they can know God better than the rest of us? Hardly. Paul says that God has gifted His people so that “the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” God has given me gifts in order to build others up, in order to strengthen the whole body of Christ. That is why He has given you gifts as well. Paul uses the same Greek word a little later in the same chapter to the Ephesians when he writes,
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)
The words that I say are to build others up, not tear them down. The words that I speak are to strengthen others, not deride or berate others. The words I speak should be spoken according to the needs of the person I am speaking to so that they will benefit from my words.
I want us to stop and really consider what Paul is urging us to do. This is not something that we can simply give a “nod” to and go on our way. This calling to live a life of selfless service is a calling from God; our precedent is Jesus Himself who said,
45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45 NIV)
Who in their right mind would willingly give up their freedom to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it in order to be a servant and a blessing to those they might not even like if it weren’t for God’s call upon their life? The answer to that is, “Not me!” I don’t know many people who are naturally selfless do you? Furthermore, Paul is not calling us to simply empty ourselves of “self” as much as he is calling us to live full of Christ. We don’t live the life of Jesus because we are selfless, but because we are full—full of His love, full of His grace, full of His mercy.
Let’s go back to where we began as we close out our study. As Jesus was praying before He went to the cross, He prayed for the unity of His followers. Let me ask you, if you and I do our own thing, look out for number one, will Jesus’ prayer be answered? How about if we die to what we want and live for the building up of others, the blessing of those that the Lord has led into our lives—will Jesus’ prayer be answered? You better believe it will.
Can you imagine a church where everyone truly loves one another, not “puts up with one another,” but genuinely loves one another? Can you imagine a church full of people who desire to build one another up instead of getting what they want? I will tell you that folks would run through hot coals to be a part of a church like that. We all want to be a part of a church like that and yet, where do find that kind of church? How do you build that kind of church? The answer is not to be found at a conference on how to achieve unity in the Body, or in any Bible study on the topic, but the answer is to be found in following Jesus alone. Paul says the same when, right after telling the folks in Rome to strive to please their neighbor instead of themselves, he writes,
3 For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” (Romans 15:3 NIV)
Jesus came to do God’s will, to bring glory to God, and we are to follow in His steps. I have to ask you this morning, “Where are you in relation to Jesus’ call to die to yourself and follow Him?” I didn’t ask you if you label yourself a Christian. I know many folks who call themselves Christian, but who do not even remotely resemble Jesus. I asked, “Where are you in relation to Jesus’ call to die to yourself and follow Him?”
My prayer this morning is that God will use this study to ignite in you and me a passion to follow Him. If we will passionately follow Him then He will stir within us a remarkable love for others, He will stir within us a desire to bless others, and He will empower us to live a life we never even considered a possibility before we began to follow Him. Won’t you ask Jesus into your heart and watch Him begin to work a change in you that you can’t work on your own?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
April 11, 2010